It’s 1819 and on the Cornish coast a team of ‘wreckers’ are putting out false lights on stormy nights to lure ships to their doom on the rocks. They loot the wrecks for anything of value but not before killing any survivors whose testimony might send them to the gallows. They also seem to know rather more than they should about the ships’ routes and what they’re carrying. They operate out of the titular inn but somewhat inconveniently, their leader (Banks) has a niece (O’Hara) who has turned up out of the blue to stay with her aunt (his wife). Well it turns out that shipping information is coming from their real boss, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton), who is supposed to be the justice of the peace. Matters are further complicated by the fact that one of the newer members of the gang is really a navy lieutenant (Newton) on an undercover mission for the Home Office (no less) to find out who’s really behind all this. Looks like some atmospheric swashbuckling adventure is ahoy.
Well, sort of. Jamaica Inn has got bags of atmosphere and the storm-lashed wrecking scenes are the movie’s best set-pieces. There are also a couple of great performances from some of the gang, including a splendid turn from writer Emlyn Williams as Harry the Peddler. But something isn’t quite right and it’s certainly not the sum of its parts. Hitch seems to have been a bit distracted by his imminent departure to the States and also by the fact that he found Charles Laughton (who produced) all but impossible to work with. Laughton demanded more screen time so his true role as the gang’s organiser is revealed earlier than intended forcing the director to miss out on a twist opportunity. That must have really grated with Hitch. But for the problems Laughton might have brought him, he does rather make up for it with a classic piece of camp villainy before going deliciously off the rails in the closing act. In fact, he actually turns a rather average movie into quite an entertaining one.
Hitch hated it and Daphne du Maurier was so unimpressed she nearly didn’t let him make Rebecca (1940) but it’s still a solid piece of entertainment even if it isn’t quite what anyone had planned.
Extras: Audio commentary by film critic Jeremy Arnold, Shipwrecked in a Studio: a visual essay by Donald Spoto, Trailer
JAMAICA INN (1939) / DIRECTOR: ALFRED HITCHCOCK / SCREENPLAY: SIDNEY GILLIAT, JOAN HARRISON / STARRING: CHARLES LAUGHTON, MAUREEN O’HARA, EMLYN WILLIAMS, LESLIE BANKS, ROBERT NEWTON / RELEASED: NOVEMBER 7TH